I'm Thinking of Ending Things

I'm Thinking of Ending Things ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

She’s thinking of ending things. Whatever her name is. Lucy? Louisa? “The Young Woman,” as star Jessie Buckley is listed in the credits? It changes like the weather or the color of her winter coat, brazenly and yet in a way that you don’t really notice until it starts to snow. His name is Jake — it’s always Jake (Jesse Plemons). They’ve only been dating for about seven weeks, though seven weeks can be long enough to crystallize into its own kind of forever. He’s driving her deep into farm country in order to meet his parents, and she’s perverse enough to go along for the ride, even if she can’t shake the feeling that the two of them are about to reach an irreconcilable fork in the road.

Where did that idea come from, and how did it get here? It just seemed to show up one day, as if someone had incepted it into the deepest layer of her mind. But it’s real. It has to be. “You can’t fake a thought,” Jake once told her, and this one is exploding behind her eyes like a fireworks display that only she can see even though it tinges everything she looks at.

“You can’t fake a thought.” Those words appear twice in the opening paragraphs of Iain Reid’s 2016 novel “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” You don’t even have to turn the first page before it’s clear why Charlie Kaufman was so drawn to the book, as the filmmaker’s career has always been shaped by a fascination with the tortured — if tragicomic — relationship between the life of the mind and the world that’s filtered through it. Kaufman is obsessed with the cracked echo chamber of human consciousness; with the feeling that everyone is talking to each other through a two-way mirror; with the perverse irony that our inescapable ego-centrism is the one thing we all have in common.

From “Adaptation” and “Anomalisa” to his recent novel “Antkind” and all points in between, Kaufman’s work hinges on characters who are (often literally) trying to break free of their own brains and/or bodies and bridge the divide that isolates us from each other. Some of them succeed, some of them make peace with that gap, and some of them swan dive into it under the delusion they might eventually crawl out the other side. But at the end of the day, every Charlie Kaufman story effectively unpacks a different attempt to bust out of the same prison. As Millicent Weems put it in “Synecdoche, New York”: “This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone.” Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich.

If “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” feels like both an act of self-parody for its director and also a radical departure from his previous work, that’s because it takes Kaufman’s usual fixations and turns them inside out. While this leaky snow globe of a breakup movie is yet another bizarre and ruefully hilarious trip into the rift between people, it’s not — for the first time — about someone who’s trying to cross it. On the contrary, Kaufman is now telling a story about the rift itself. He’s tracing the invisible border where Jake ends and the Young Woman begins in the hope that he might be able to capture it on screen for even just a moment, like someone conducting a séance for all the dead space between us.